(Editor’s note: Introduction by Karl Haro von Mogel) On Thursday the 18th of June, the Vatican published an encyclical written by Pope Francis – an open letter addressed to “every living person on this planet.” The bulk of this encyclical focused on addressing climate change and other detrimental impacts that humans are having on the environment. Subtitled On Care for Our Common Home, it called for a revolution in how we think and act about climate change, which to this day remains a politically divided issue despite the overwhelming scientific consensus.
There was a passage that discussed genetically engineered crops, which caught the attention when a draft version of the encyclical was apparently leaked on Monday. Two years ago, the creator of Golden Rice, Ingo Potrykus, had asked Pope Francis to bless a small sample of the genetically engineered and pro-vitamin A-producing staple crop, which he hopes will help cure blindness in developing countries. Francis, who himself has a scientific background, obliged.
But if you had read statements on sites that regularly campaign against GMOs, you may have thought that the Pontiff “Slammed” GMOs as harmful in the upcoming encyclical. When it was first published, Andrew Revkin quickly pointed out that the Pope did not seem to opine so negatively about biotechnology. (Revkin is writing a series of posts about the environmental and political aspects of the enclyclical which are worth checking out.)
Drew Kershen, the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law perused the 184-page and 246 paragraph encyclical to see just what the open letter actually says about biotechnology and how this fits into the context of both what we know about the technology and how the Vatican approaches such topics. He sent Biology Fortified his comments, which are reproduced in full below.
Comments by Drew Kershen:
The encyclical praises human creativity as expressed through science and technology. Yet that praise is immediately followed with expressions of concern about abuse of humans and the earth through economic power or a “technological paradigm” which fails to distinguish properly between what can be done and what should be done. The encyclical calls for a human centered view of ecology and warns of valuing plants and animals above human beings. But at the same time, the encyclical warns constantly about the abuse of power and human hubris that is destroying the earth and its resources in a quest for wealth and consumerism. The encyclical uses the word “sustainable” (or its variations) numerous times and promotes a sustainable view of ecology as developed through international consensus, such as the Convention on Biodiversity (Rio de Janeiro 1992), because international consensus promotes the common good rather than individual interests.
With specific reference to biotechnology and genetic modification, I think paragraphs 133-134 give an accurate sense for the encyclical in this specific topic and in general. (Editor’s note: Quotation is paragraphs 131-136)
New biological technologies
- Here I would recall the balanced position of Saint John Paul II, who stressed the benefits of scientific and technological progress as evidence of “the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action”, while also noting that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention to the consequences of such interference in other areas”. He made it clear that the Church values the benefits which result “from the study and applications of molecular biology, supplemented by other disciplines such as genetics, and its technological application in agriculture and industry”. But he also pointed out that this should not lead to “indiscriminate genetic manipulation” which ignores the negative effects of such interventions. Human creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others. We need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks.
- This, then, is the correct framework for any reflection concerning human intervention on plants and animals, which at present includes genetic manipulation by biotechnology for the sake of exploiting the potential present in material reality. The respect owed by faith to reason calls for close attention to what the biological sciences, through research uninfluenced by economic interests, can teach us about biological structures, their possibilities and their mutations. Any legitimate intervention will act on nature only in order “to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God”.
- It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application. Genetic mutations, in fact, have often been, and continue to be, caused by nature itself. Nor are mutations caused by human intervention a modern phenomenon. The domestication of animals, the crossbreeding of species and other older and universally accepted practices can be mentioned as examples. We need but recall that scientific developments in GM cereals began with the observation of natural bacteria which spontaneously modified plant genomes. In nature, however, this process is slow and cannot be compared to the fast pace induced by contemporary technological advances, even when the latter build upon several centuries of scientific progress.
- Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated. In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to “the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production”. The most vulnerable of these become temporary labourers, and many rural workers end up moving to poverty-stricken urban areas. The expansion of these crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now and in the future. In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation. This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers.
- Certainly, these issues require constant attention and a concern for their ethical implications. A broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place, one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name. It sometimes happens that complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on the basis of particular interests, be they politico-economic or ideological. This makes it difficult to reach a balanced and prudent judgement on different questions, one which takes into account all the pertinent variables. Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected (farmers, consumers, civil authorities, scientists, seed producers, people living near fumigated fields, and others) can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future. This is a complex environmental issue; it calls for a comprehensive approach which would require, at the very least, greater efforts to finance various lines of independent, interdisciplinary research capable of shedding new light on the problem.
- On the other hand, it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.
There is much in the encyclical with which probably everyone can agree. I certainly read the encyclical with “an open heart”, as Pope Francis requested yesterday in discussing the pending release of the encyclical. I believe that my work does indeed abide by the spirit and the goals of this encyclical. Hence, I am encouraged, not discouraged by the encyclical.
The encyclical can be read favorably to agricultural biotechnology primarily because it does not condemn or attack science and technology. But at the same time, the encyclical clearly adopts a cautious approach to agricultural biotechnology. The encyclical is not against science or technology but worries about socio-economic concerns that I think are factually incorrect or overemphasized as “significant difficulties.” In other words, although the encyclical would appear to favor agbiotech such as Golden Rice, the encyclical also has the tenor of a predisposition to favor “agroecology” as opposed to “sustainable intensification” as the way forward for agriculture. Note that I have said the encyclical has a “predisposition” but not a “commitment” (a belief) about the way forward for agriculture. The encyclical also has a firm commitment to international organizations and governmental planning as seeking the “common good.” I do not share that belief because it ignores, in my opinion, the power politics that drives international organizations and governments. I do not share the belief that international organizations and governments are often, generally, (or even) ever seeking the common good.
Relevant terms and in what paragraphs they may be found:
Biotechnology: 102, 104, 132.
Genet(ic,ics,ally): 131, 132, 133, 138.